Women Bishops: A Personal View 24 November 2012
On November 11th 1992 a small group of us gathered in my house at theological college to drink tea and eat chocolate and look at the televised debate of the General Synod of the Church of England on the ordination of women to the priesthood. A `yes’ vote meant that the women amongst us could be ordained priests on the same basis as the men we were training with. There was huge joy and relief when the vote went through. We felt we could hold our heads up high and not be ashamed of being members (soon to be representatives) of the Anglican Church. When I trained there were ten women and sixty men in the college
On November 20th 2012 people all over Britain listened to the internet, or monitored tweets as well as followed news on the radio or television. Unfortunately, the reaction to this Synod wasn’t joy and relief as in 1992, but anger, hurt and shame.
Comedians, journalists, presenters, even secular philosophers all commented on my Twitter feed how ridiculous the Church of England looked. MPs debating the issue this week in parliament were unanimous that it was unacceptable for the state church to discriminate against women in this way.
I am now involved myself in the training of ordinands and Readers (lay preachers) for part time ministry. The overwhelming majority of our students are female. Most of the classes I teach have one or two men in them at most – some have none.
I am not a member of the Church of England, however I am a priest in the Church in Wales. The Church in Wales finally passed a measure which enabled women to be ordained while I was a curate and on January 11th 1997, I was ordained priest alongside those who had been waiting to fulfil their vocation for decades – a lecturer in New Testament, parish clergy, diocesan officers, and a hospital chaplain.
So what was my response on Tuesday? I was taken aback by my own sense of anger and shame. I felt embarrassed to be associated with an institution which sent a message to women that they were second class. I was appalled that I was a member of something which people in our society thought was at best eccentric, and at worst oppressive and immoral.
This was not a vote which affected me personally, and not just because I am a priest in the Church in Wales and not Church of England. Not being able to be priested had a huge effect on the day to day ministries of women deacons – it was like doing a job with one hand tied behind your back. We could do everything – chair meetings, pastoral work, preach, lead worship…except for presiding at the Eucharist or pronounce the absolution or perform a blessing.
Not being able to preside at the Eucharist meant having to beg, steal or borrow consecrated bread and wine from colleagues, and `drive around with Jesus in a box’ as one of my friends put it so that we had the consecrated elements for a communion service. Another option was to step aside at the prayer of consecration for a stranger to take over at that crucial point where priest and people join together in recalling and recreating the events of the Last Supper.
Even though I personally only experienced this for a year or so, the day by day experience of stepping aside just because I am female and not male inculcated in me a sense of shame, something which has been difficult to shake off.
In other Provinces, the measure to allow for the ordination of women as priests also allowed them to be consecrated as Bishops. However in England (and Wales) a separate measure is needed. Twenty years ago it seemed to be the most generous option to take baby steps to preserve the feelings of those against women priests. However, by now, it feels like institutionalised sexism at its worst. Then, women would not have had the experience to act as bishops. But in 2013 we will be installing as Archbishop of Canterbury a man who was ordained in 1992 and has a similar amount of experience as those first women priests, and considerably less than those who were ordained deacon for many years beforehand.
In my view it was a mistake not to pass both bills at the same time. Theologically, the ministry of a bishop and priest is very similar – it is just scope and context that is different. To drive a wedge in-between both orders is a new phenomenon. In the first century, within Scripture and Tradition we see a two-fold order emerging (deacon / presbyter) and it was only as the Church grew and needed wider oversight that the ministry of Bishops arose. Up until about 110AD the titles of bishop and presbyter were virtually interchangeable.
The big issue for the Church, and especially the Church of England as the State Church, is how much we engage with the values of the people and communities we serve. As a practical theologian, I don’t believe we can access a pure and unsullied set of doctrines untainted by the world and / or our own interpretation of it. All theology is mediated by our own interpretation and experience.
Neither do I believe that we should see ourselves as separate from the world and reject its values out of hand. I would not want the values of consumerism to dictate my theology for example. But a passion for justice and the dignity of all people as seen in the overwhelmingly dominant view in Britain that men and women are equal (as well as the concern for the rights of those who are in a minority whether on the grounds of sexuality, race or disability) seems to me to be entirely in keeping with Christian theology and tradition.
It is unclear as to what the next steps will be. The legalistic answer is that this measure cannot be brought back until a new Synod is convened is 2015. The fierce reaction however has meant that the Bishops are looking at ways to bring the measure back. However on Wednesday, women priests all over England continued to bury the dead, prepare families for baptism, held the hands of the dying, filled in forms, prepared sermons, led school assemblies, chaired meetings, laughed at a joke in the corner shop, went to training or a meeting. Some of those women have the skills and personal characteristics that are desperately needed to be a diocesan leader-in-mission in today’s fast changing and complex world. Their emotional intelligence, communication and social skills serve them well in their local context but they are much needed on a wider scale. But above all the Church needs to send a message to society that women as well as men are made in God’s image and should be treated with dignity and respect. It is no longer about a small group of women ministers. It is about the Church having the integrity to speak up against oppression and for justice and freedom. It cannot do that whilst acting unjustly towards women.